How Polish Immigrants Became Entrepreneurs


(Photo via Nowy Dziennik)

(Photo via Nowy Dziennik)

Immigrant entrepreneurs are twice as likely to open up a business as their U.S.-born counterparts, including their children, and play an outsized role in Main Street businesses. What drives them is the allure of the American Dream, the will to do well for their families, and the ability to see opportunities from a particular perspective.

The famous Polish market Eagle Provisions in Brooklyn’s South Slope, which closed last year, is a case in point. For more than 36 years, it was owned and operated by a family of immigrants from Poland – Steve and his two sons Richard and John Zawisny. “My father Steve was a business person back in Poland. When we came to the U.S. in the 60s, his dream was to have a business in America,” says Richard Zawisny, who was just six years old when the family immigrated to the U.S. At first, his father took up a number of odd jobs until he landed one as a butcher at the White Eagle Market on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn.

When the opportunity presented itself a couple of years later to purchase the business, Steve Zawisny didn’t think twice. He knew it was his chance to realize his lifelong dream of running a business. “He had this glow in his eyes,” says Richard Zawisny, who had by then had graduated from college and was pursuing a career at the supermarket Pathmark, moving up slowly and making a nice salary.

Nonetheless, in 1979, with his brother John (an older brother Bogdan was running his own store in Manhattan) Richard joined his father in opening what turned out to be a very successful food store: Eagle Provisions. At that time, it was the only Polish store in South Brooklyn and throughout the years it adjusted to changing demographics, while providing employment for dozens of people.

Now, a year after closing Eagle Provisions and selling the property, Richard Zawisny has invested in real estate and is already thinking of a new business. “I am seriously starting to think about opening up a store in a year or so. And I will go into it with my son,” says Zawisny, adding he has always had the entrepreneurial bug in him and can’t get rid of it. His daughters, though, don’t seem to be following in his and his father’s footsteps in business, as all four of them are pursuing nursing and medical careers.

The Zawisny family is but one of the many examples of immigrants who come to the United States and look for the opportunity to open up their own business. According to a report by Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants play an important part in “Main Street businesses” such as grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores and “other enterprises that are key to neighborhood growth and vitality.” There are numerous examples of such businesses run by Polish immigrants in neighborhoods like Greenpoint and most recently Ridgewood or Maspeth. “Nationwide, immigrants make up 28 percent of Main Street business owners, a level well beyond their share of the labor force or overall business ownership, which stand at 16 and 18 percent, respectively,” says the report based on the U.S. Census figures and the Survey of Business Owners.

“However cliche it may sound, I think what drives us is the so called American Dream: to have a nice car and a big house,” says Peter (he declined to provide his last name), who came to the U.S. in 2000, when in his mid-twenties – and by 2007 had become a partner in a gas station in New Jersey. “Coming here you don’t know the language well and don’t know the opportunities, so you come to realize that the job you are able to land at first won’t let you reach the American Dream. Then working for yourself opens the door to success,” says Peter, who now owns a laundromat in South Jersey and is one of two Polish partners in Amsterdam Alley, a popular bar and hang out place in Linden, NJ.

A different lens

According to the authors of the “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor,” a study issued by Babson College and Baruch College, the first-generation “view their new environment from a different lens, seeing gaps of unique possibilities that others do not.” Forty-eight percent of first generation immigrants say they have noticed business opportunities in their area, compared to 44% of those in the second generation and 43% of people who aren’t immigrants.

Jacek Marchwinski (Photo by Alexksandra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

Jacek Marchwinski (Photo by Alexksandra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

Opportunities galore are what Jacek Marchwinski saw upon coming to the U.S. in September 1986. At first he took up a job at Polish-owned pizzeria in Jersey City. It was the owner of the restaurant who would tell him and his future business partner that “opening up a business is the way to go in America.” So they decided to follow his advice.

First they tried a fruit stand in Manhattan. That didn’t work out, so Marchwinski took a real estate course, and in the meantime worked for a small construction company in New Jersey, owned by yet another Polish immigrant. He toyed with the idea of becoming a partner. When that didn’t happen, in the fall of 1987 he and his friend decided to open up their own construction company. This time, they succeeded. Polonia Construction Inc. has for almost 30 years been offering construction services, and now specializes in masonry.

Marchwinski and his partner, just like many other immigrant business owners, had what can be called “entrepreneurial” attitude, which characterizes many first generation immigrants – an attitude that might best be described as fearless determination. Steve Zawisny didn’t hesitate a bit, even though at the time, nearly 40 years ago, the neighborhood of South Slope was run down and considered dangerous. “My father was the driving force behind the store and had a very good knowledge about how to deal with the city departments and all the difficult people. He always had a pretty good solution, so everything worked out well,” says Richard Zawisny.

That entrepreneurial spirit appears to run strongest in the first generation. The GEM study reports that as many as 56% of immigrants believe themselves capable of running a business, compared to 46% of their U.S. born children. The fear of failure was also found to be lower among the first generation, with 31% of them saying it would prevent them from pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, compared to 35% of the second generation and 32% of non-immigrants.

“We didn’t have anything to lose really,” Marchwinski says. Both he and his business partner majored in building and construction at a technical university in Krakow, so they felt comfortable in the industry. “It took maybe two hours or so to register the business,” he adds. However, they also cautiously calculated the risks and benefits. “It is not that we invested thousands of dollars into it. We already had owned a van and bought a truck. If things hadn’t worked out, we would have sold them to get the money back,” Marchwinski says.

Embracing a different dream

Immigrants typically have a different frame of reference than their children or those who have lived in the U.S. for a long time, and view their surroundings differently.

“We came here from communist Poland, where your salary was $15-20 a month. We had to fight our way through everything. Our children don’t have to anymore,” says Marchwinski, pointing out that the second generation benefits from what the parents have built. “They go to school and later join their American friends in applying for jobs,” he says.

Two Polish immigrants are partners in Amsterdam Alley, the Linden, NJ bar (Photo by Aleksadra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

Two Polish immigrants are partners in Amsterdam Alley, the Linden, NJ bar (Photo by Aleksadra Slabisz for Voices of NY)

“The second generation does not have the same experiences, and may even be encouraged by their immigrant parents to embrace a different dream, including perhaps one involving a more stable job,” the GEM report states.

It is often the stability that their parents have created through hard work that allows the second generation to pursue education, prepare for the work force or develop their talents. “In certain professions you need a calling. All four of my daughters have that,” Zawisny says. Marchwinski’s daughters are also pursuing non-entrepreneurial careers in medical and corporate fields, for which their college degrees prepared them.

With U.S. education and connections it is easier to find a good job and start a career that allows one to provide for the family and enjoy the American Dream. “When I came to the U.S. I didn’t even know where to look for a good job. It seemed easier to open up a business than find a good job,” says Peter.

Owning a business means hard work that often takes up 7 day a week and demands a lot of sacrifice. However, being your own boss has its perks too, which for Marchwinski outweigh everything else. “A week or so before Christmas we stop all jobs and don’t go back to work until the end of January,” says Marchwinski, who likes to use the time for travel.

For Richard Zawisny, being your own boss means you can be innovative. “You try something, if it doesn’t work it fails. You think positively that it is going to work. If you work for someone they may not even let you implement a different idea,” the businessman says.

Aleksandra Slabisz is a reporter at Nowy Dziennik. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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